‘Civilised’

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With the Commonwealth Games starting in Glasgow this week, the usual suspects have been out in force complaining about homophobia in many of the Commonwealth countries. Never one to shy from the limelight, Peter Tatchell actually travelled to Glasgow to call on Alex Salmond and organisers to condemn these nations and even ban them from competing (quite how travelling up to Scotland to tell its First Minister what to do squares with his support for independence, I’m not quite sure.) By far the most prominent example of this trend, on social media at least, was this meme from Stonewall:

10475673_10152519854650399_2571160274686206565_nStonewall went to town with this one, posting it several times and retweeting posts of it by others. Its many retweets means that it will have been seen by many thousands of people and it led to a predictable outpouring of anger and condemnation. Then, in a perfect fuelling of this narrative, the opening ceremony featured that kiss. Or should I say ‘that stunning rebuke’? Take that, savages! Many of those tweeting their outrage regarding homophobia went crazy for this kiss, as if it was single-handedly going to stop bigotry in its tracks. More worryingly, it quickly became proof of our superiority, with comments like this being fairly common:

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‘Civilised’. The use of this word alone should have set alarm bells ringing as to the subtext being pushed beneath this facile outrage.This language and the ideas behind it were absolutely central to colonialism and slavery, with “Africans…thought to be sub-human, uncivilised, and inferior to Europeans in every way.” It’s notable that the same arguments are also used by supporters of Israel. Their deployment against the countries of the Commonwealth, almost entirely made up of countries which were formerly part of the British Empire, is disturbing to say the least. Take that, savages, indeed.

A typical response to this concern from the outraged is ‘oh so we can’t attack homophobia in these countries because they were colonies then?’ The implication is that if you find this racist moralising distateful you must support anti-LGBT laws. This is, of course, utter nonsense. It’s very telling that the outrage is almost entirely aimed at these countries en masse and expressed via organisations such as Stonewall, which explicitly links its own ‘international work’ to the issue in an effort to raise more money. Here we have the White Saviour Industrial Complex which Teju Cole wrote about with regards to Africa blended with homonationalism (note, for example, that there is little outrage about any other human rights issues in these countries, including poverty, or about the LGBT record of ‘civilised’ countries like the USA) There is no consideration that work to change these laws goes on within these countries and there is certainly no appreciation that these must be the way change happens. It cannot and will not be imposed by us. Scott Long wrote a typically good piece on this a few years ago where he noted that LGBT activists from these Commonwealth countries were being shut out by ‘Western’ interests (including Tatchell). As he writes:

The successes achieved at the past two Commonwealth summits came because LGBT advocates from the countries targeted and affected were there, proving they existed and their lives counted.

In his piece Teju Cole directly addresses Americans swept up in the Kony fever, telling them how they can ‘help’:

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact…If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself.

It’s that Biblical parable about removing the log from your own eye before judging, or attempting to ‘help’, others. This is utterly fundamental to this Commonwealth issue. In the minds of the outraged, these countries become demonised others, reduced to nothing more than their laws regarding LGBT people. In condemning them while patting ourselves on the back, the central role played by the United Kingdom (and contrary to what some seem to believe, this absolutely also means Scotland here) in how these countries have developed is completely elided. When there was yet another brief e-petition frenzy over Uganda’s homophobic laws earlier this year, some pointed out that these laws were introduced by colonial powers. This has been pointed out in the past regarding the Commonwealth – this very good piece looks at not only the colonial legacy but the problem of approaching these issues in terms of a ‘LGBTI’ framework in the first place – and researchers state that anti-LGBT laws are “mostly a legacy of British colonialism“. So we are berating these countries for laws which we largely introduced to them!

It’s essential to be aware of and consider our role in this because it blows the racist ideas about the ‘civilised’ and the ‘savages’ wide open. Lest we forget, the British Empire was absolutely brutal. Britain massacred, tortured, starved, ethnically cleansed and had concentration camps well before the Nazis came along. It’s also completely forgotten that the overwhelmingly poor countries which retain these laws aren’t inherently ‘broken’ – their current status is heavily shaped by colonialism’s history of slavery, cultural oppression and the theft of wealth and resources on an unimaginable scale. Let’s be in no doubt here: the UK’s position as a wealthy nation owes much to its horrofic subjugation of these countries people are now wagging their fingers at.

Colonialism isn’t some distant relic as many seem to think -as late as 1997 the UK was still decolonising (Hong Kong) and its sovereignty over places like Gibralter and the Falklands endures to this day. Yet if British rule isn’t the terror it once was, the legacy of this remains strong (and is precisely one of the main reasons why the UK bears some responsibility for the Israel/Palestine conflict). Many of the ‘tinpot dictators’ we love to hate are there largely because of us. We continue to arm these countries even while expressing mock-outrage at their transgressions, with Campaign Against the Arms Trade documenting that the UK sold arms to 46 of the 52 other Commonwealth countries in the past three years, including the maligned Uganda and Nigeria (as Eleanor Harris put it on Twitter, we sold them both arms and attitudes). It’s also argued by some that the modern framework of aid, international development and economic ‘support’ is a form of neocolonialism, wherein the ‘former’ colonial powers retain their paternalism and exercise power in these ostensibly liberated countries.

It should be clear, then, that we are in no position to lecture the rest of the Commonwealth on the matter of how ‘civilised’ they are and we should be wary of indulging in that rhetoric. Yet even taken on its own terms, this behaviour is staggeringly hypocritical. It beggars belief that LGBT laws have become totemic of ‘civilisation’ when the UK is still very much on that journey itself. Homosexual activities were only legalised in Scotland in 1980. Section 28, our very own law banning homosexual ‘propaganda’ in schools, was not fully abolished until 2003 and was aggressively supported by our current Prime Minister, David Cameron. Even the much vaunted ‘marriage equality’ finally obtained this year was only ‘equality’ for some, with the ‘spousal veto’ discriminating against transexual people. Yet transexual rights are a poor relative of ‘gay rights’ here, as seen in Stonewall’s award of ‘Politician of the Year’ to Baroness Stowell and the owner of Pink News tweeting his congratulations to her on her promotion. Stowell was a staunch defender of the veto.

The Scottish Government’s 2011 report on Discrimination and Positive Action, meanwhile, shows that there is a long way to go in the host country of the Commonwealth Games. In it we find that 55% of respondents would be ‘unhappy/very unhappy’ at the prospect of a family member entering a relationship with a ‘cross-dresser’, and 49% would be unhappy if it was a relationship with a transexual. 30% would be unhappy if a family member married someone of the same sex (though the campaign for marriage since then may have eroded this % somewhat). This is without getting into truly terrifying statistics such as 49% agreeing that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thinking the same about more black and/or Asian people living there.

Remove the log from your own eye. It’s worth repeating. We are not going to change laws in Commonwealth countries by tweeting a meme and indulging in ramped up racist rhetoric online. We’re not even going to do it by protesting, or writing to our MPs. The only way to progress is to listen to the activists who actually live in these countries and amplify their voices whereever possible. Just as they have responsibility for change within their own countries, we must take the same for change within ours. Our countryis not a benevolent force promoting good throughout the world. We can and should oppose the disgusting arms trade; we can and should oppose our government’s support for dictators and massacres like the one currently taking place in Gaza. But more than that, we must educate ourselves about the injustices which persevere in our own country. The scourges of poverty, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, police brutality, political corruption and more are very much alive in the United Kingdom. Solving them will take a lot more than a staged kiss.

Some Quick Thoughts on Channel 4’s Hunted

I tried not to pre-judge Hunted, an edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches about homophobia in Russia, broadcast tonight. I really did. Yet having just watched it I have to attempt to articulate the despair it induced in me.

The issue of homophobia in Russia has captured a massive international audience in the past year, in no small part due to the interventions of celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Harvey Fierstein. As stories of the hardships faced by Russia’s LGBT (but really mainly gay male) community have dramatically increased there have been concomitant protests in countless Western cities, boycotts of Russian vodka, a near-endless litany of e-petitions and a growing industry in ‘concern porn’ where any individual or company speaking about the issue is seemingly guaranteed a disproportionate amount of attention, no matter how irrelevant their intervention. I wrote previously about a lot of my problems with the growing hysteria, which seemed largely ill-informed and enormously hypocritical. I think it’s safe to say that the situation hasn’t improved – in fact, as Sochi has neared, the hysteria has grown. We need only look to yesterday to see examples of the self-serving drivel being pushed out in the name of the gays of Russia (it’s notable that the Brewdog ‘promotion’ continues with the itself-weirdly-homophobic ‘making fun of Putin’s masculinity and implying he’s a closet case’ tack taken by many already.)

Nonetheless, there is clearly a very real issue here and it’s entirely right that it be looked at. It’s also entirely right that we in the West help if we can. So when I learned that Channel 4’s respected documentary series Dispatches was covering the issue, I was quietly hopeful that it would do so in a constructive way. This hope largely faded when I learned that the episode was called Hunted, a provocatively emotive title which feeds into the frenzy that shows no sign of abating. Nonetheless, I wanted to give it a chance.

I wasn’t just disappointed, I was crushed. Dispatches had an hour to explore this issue and they used it largely to show various examples of gay people being beaten, harrassed, abused and denigrated. It was shocking and undeniably ‘powerful’ – absolutely no-one deserves to be treated in these ways. Yet what was the point? We’ve been told that these things are happening over and over again by the media. Showing the attacks certainly made them viscerally real but there was an added, horrible sense that we were voyeurs contributing to the humiliation of the victims. Were all of these individuals approached afterwards to give proper, reasoned consent to having their brutalisation shown on UK television?! Did the film-makers have any contact with them whatsoever beyond the actual incidents? After perhaps the most shocking and upsetting footage, where a man is lured to a flat by a gang and then attacked by them, we are told in voice-over that the film-makers followed the victim as he left to offer support. We learn nothing more. The victims on the whole remained just that – faceless victims without identity serving only to shock a UK audience.

As voyeurs watching acts of brutality we instinctively feel angry and want to help. Yet we also feel powerless. This is where the emotive rush to ‘do something, anything’ so easily enters and where the documentary could have made a real difference. Instead, it played to what the audience already ‘knew’ – it added almost nothing. It seemed to me, for example, that for the most part the documentary was actually about the rise of vigilantism in Putin’s Russia rather than the rise of homophobia. You wouldn’t know this because it made absolutely zero effort to contextualise the vigilante groups it kept showing, interviewing and even infiltrating. There was not a single mention of the fact that Russian vigilantism has been a major problem for immigrants and ethnic minorities as well as ‘social deviant’ groups such as drug users. It’s really not difficult to find journalism which gives this very important context. Scott Long’s blog post here is particularly good on it and you’ll learn more about the problem in reading it than from the hour spent with Hunted. The first few paragraph’s of Scott’s post are particularly relevant here. Note, for example:

Clips and snapshots keep cropping up on Western blogs. Here’sa  ”horrific video showing Russian thugs have started entrapping gay men and boys,” posted by John Aravosis, with 85,000 hits on YouTube. Yet how can you evaluate it if nobody bothers to say where the hell they got it?  Nor do most of the reposters have any qualms about showing the full faces of the people in these videos and photos: apparently once they’ve been outed and humiliated in Russia, they’re fair game in the rest of the world. (“While I am loathe to expose this young man any further, but [sic] this must be shown,” Melanie Nathan blogs while hawking one video. No, it mustn’t.) There’s a panicked compulsion to give us more and more pictures to consume, partly because they drive up Web traffic, partly because they lend an urgency that makes mere explanations seem distracting. But you can’t make sense of it unless you can say, not just see, something about what’s going on.

That could easily have been written about Hunted, which arouses an urge for quick action but tells you absolutely nothing about why any of this is going on. We kept being told than homophobia was on the rise in Russia but it was presented as some mass sociopathic tendency rather than something intricately connected to the rise in racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, attacks on the reproductive autonomy of women or the general human rights situation in the country. We were given a very brief interview with a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and told nothing about how or why they are such a major force in modern Russia. Perhaps most egregiously, the sole attempt to explore how homophobia may be a political tool for Putin (rather than some bizarre fixation) came in a couple of sentences from a Russian activist stating that his domestic policies were a disaster and he needed a smokescreen. This seems like a quite fundamental assertion to explore in an hour-long documentary about homophobia in Russia but it was left at that. If the documentary had looked at this more thoroughly, it would certainly have encountered the strong body of opinion that Putin is not only shoring up his conservative base with the homophobia, but also drawing on strong anti-Western sentiment. This joins some crucial dots when it comes to other big issues, as seen in this Al Jazeera piece:

This economic “stimulus” by Putin may jumpstart his flagging economy that was robust at the height of his popularity in 2000. He enjoyed a popularity built on oil and gas profits that have since dried up. No longer a media star, he has lost support and now tries to find it in his right wing flank with an official homophobic nationalism. This positions him against the West with its so-called excessive rights for gays and abortion. A new anti-Americanism thrives cloaked in a mix of homophobic nationalism and asylum for Edward Snowden.

It’s not difficult to see how Putin’s opposition to Western ‘intervention’ in Syria fits into this. It’s also impossible not to see how the ostentatious Western boycotts and clicktivism could fit right into Putin’s narrative and actually bolster his position.

Hunted had no interest in such analysis, instead viewing everything through the prism of an all-pervasive homophobia. The police hassling a couple of protesters was portrayed as being because they were gay, while the troubles faced by an anti-Putin schoolteacher were seen to be because she supported gay rights. No doubt homophobia played a role in both but it seems somewhat disingenuous not to note that brutal crackdowns on all dissent is a hallmark of Putin’s Russia. Indeed, without wishing for a second to downplay the horrors shown on screen in Hunted, the film’s determination to push its message meant that life for gay people was shown to be unremittingly grim and desperate. It’s fair to say that there are far more positive presentations of Russian gay life out there (and even the documentary’s repeated assertions that the state did nothing about anti-gay violence doesn’t bear scrutiny, with one of the main ringleaders of the vigilante groups facing extradition after fleeing the country).

In short, it seems to me that the film will do more harm than good. It had an opportunity to inform, to educate, to provide not only valuable but essential context to what’s happening in Russia. Instead it affirmed every nightmarish vision of a crazed, pariah country which needs to be saved from itself (rather than a country which our own leaders are all too happy to sell arms todo business with and buy fuel from).It continued to present homophobia as an issue separate from wider human rights, the kind of attitude which has seen ‘activists’ suddenly noticing that, hey, those evil conglomerates McDonald’s and Coca-Cola don’t seem to be very nice! The anger and despair it aroused will almost certainly be directed towards more social media updates, more e-petitions and more aimless demands that something be done. For me, that’s an unforgivable outcome for a film which showed such inhumane brutality.

For a far more constructive look at the question of ‘what is to be done’ with regards to the issue, this second Scott Long post is essential reading.